‘The Andy Griffith Show’: How Don Knotts Helped Griffith’s Acting Style Evolve From ‘Rural Clown’ to ‘Lincolnesque’
When The Andy Griffith Show first aired, Griffith’s role as Sheriff Andy Taylor had an entirely different approach than the Andy Taylor we meet in later seasons.
In Season 1, Andy was almost frenetically folksy while the Andy that emerges in season 2 and beyond carried himself as a compassionate, thoughtful leader.
The significant factor in this transformation? Actor Don Knotts.
Griffith exaggerated a Southern accent initially on ‘The Andy Griffith Show’
As Richard Kelly noted in his 1981 book, The Andy Griffith Show, many of the characters, namely Griffith, played up a heavy Southern accent.
“In a few of the early shows, Knotts attempted to give his speech a Southern flavor by occasionally saying ‘right cheer’ for ‘right here,’ but he soon dropped that because it sounded fake. Andy, too, abandoned his exaggerated Southern accent for his natural speech by the end of the second year of the series.”
Don Knotts in a conversation with the Television Academy Foundation, mentioned Griffith’s over-done accent that first season: “Andy, in the beginning, laid on his Southern dialect more than he really had and then he pulled that way back as we went on. He was being the funny guy.”
Griffith relied on his 1950s ‘Football’ sketch early in the series
The seed of Griffith’s career can be traced back to a comedy monologue he developed called “What It Was, Was Football.”
The comedian and actor went from strength to strength each time he performed the monologue at supper clubs describing a college football game, as seen by a country preacher who is swept by a crowd into the game.
Daniel de Visé in his 2015 book Andy and Don: The Making of a Friendship and a Classic American TV Show related the moment Griffith got noticed by the right person after a performance.
“Andy performed his football sketch that summer at a dinner gathering,” he wrote. “A man came running up afterward and introduced himself as Orville Campbell. He told Andy, ‘We’ve got to make a record of this!’ Andy replied, ‘Well, Mr. Campbell, if you’ve got the money, I’ve got the time.’”
Campbell recorded Griffith’s performance and sold 50,000 copies. It was this persona in the monologue upon which the actor based, a bit heavy-handedly, the character of Andy Griffith in the show’s first season.
Andy Griffith became a ‘new kind of straight man’
The show’s pilot featured Griffith, of course, Aunt Bee actor Frances Bavier in an entirely different role, and Ronny Howard as Opie.
Don Knotts joined the cast in the first episode but “at first, Andy and Don did not know how to play to each other, and the writers and producers did not know how to deal with the two characters.”
Griffith eventually realized that he wasn’t funny; Knotts was. And soon, the lead character “became a new kind of straight man,” Kelly stated.
“As Don Knotts developed the character of Barney Fife, the acting style of Andy Griffith began to change,” Kelly wrote.
“There was a period during the early years of the show when Griffith was still performing in the style of his recorded monologues, such as ‘What It Was Was Football.’ He spoke in a frantic, sometimes halting manner, grinned every few minutes, and in general, played a heavy-handed rural clown.”
Griffith later told the show’s producer Aaron Ruben that he found it difficult to watch himself in the first year’s episodes. The star course-corrected and “in the next season he changed, becoming this Lincolnesque character.”
Andy Taylor went from bumbling law enforcement officer to protector of Barney Fife and island of wisdom to the little town of Mayberry.